BACKGROUND: For the past two years, Turkey and the United States have undertaken many limited measures designed to remove the government of President Bashar al-Assad, but none have succeeded. Their efforts to organize a credible Syrian government-in-exile have been frustrated by divisions and jealousies among Assad’s opponents. With extensive Turkish backing, the military opposition has grown stronger, but has proved unable to achieve decisive victories. If anything, the military balance has shifted in favor of the Syrian government, though Assad’s forces also lack the strength to win the war. The world is increasingly facing the prospect of another protracted Bosnian-type conflict that attracts some but not decisive foreign intervention.
The Assad regime enjoys considerable Russian and Iranian backing, including from Tehran’s regional proxy, Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It has also skillfully polarized the conflict to exploit popular fears that the insurgents are dominated by Sunni extremists who are eager to suppress Syria’s non-Sunni minorities and transform Syria into a Taliban-style regime and al-Qaeda bridgehead. The Syrian opposition remains in disarray, divided into feuding political groups and dependent on al-Qaeda affiliated groups for its best fighters.
Tensions have grown between Washington and Ankara over how to handle the Sunni extremists who dominate the military resistance. Although opposed to al-Qaeda, whose affiliates a decade ago conducted terrorist attacks inside Turkey against Western and other targets, the Turkish government has allowed Sunni militants a free hand in using its territory to train and equip fighters for the Syrian campaign. Ankara has also permitted Qatar and Saudi Arabia to provide lavish funding for the most extremist factions within the resistance.
U.S. policy makers have increasingly recognized the dangers of repeating past policy failures in Syria. As in 1979, the United States risks replacing an odious dictator who nonetheless has not threatened core U.S. national security interests with an extremist religious regime whose members would be ideologically prone to attack the United States and its regional allies in Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon. In the 1980s, Washington inadvertently allowed Islamic militants to exploit the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to develop a powerful regional base, which subsequently gave rise to the terrorist network of al-Qaeda. In Syria, the United States risks the transformation of a popular uprising against an unfriendly regime into a Sunni-defined jihad that could easily extend against American and other Western targets. At worst, a Taliban-like regime could take power in Damascus and encourage the new al-Qaeda-linked network of Syrian fighters and their foreign supporters to extend their campaign to engulf Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and other neighboring countries.
Russian policy makers are more likely see similarities with what has happened in the post-Soviet North Caucasus; Sunni extremists and Gulf money helped the influence of Islamist militants grow in Chechnya, and these went on to wage jihad in neighboring regions as well as launching terrorist attacks in the rest of the Russian federation. For this reason, they have stood firm against the demands from the U.S. to halt their vital arms shipments and diplomatic support for the Assad regime. Iran continues to provide even more decisive fighters and funds to the Syrian government, and has encouraged crucial Hezbollah intervention on Assad’s behalf.
Ankara and Washington have had their own opportunities to intervene more directly in the Syrian conflict, but they have repeatedly declined to exploit possible pretexts for employing their armed forces to remove Assad. Turkey has experienced numerous cross-border firing by Syrian government forces, terrorist attacks by groups linked to the Assad regime, most recently the attack in the town of Reyhanlı on May 11 that left over fifty dead, the shooting down last year of one of its warplanes over Syria, and a surging number of Syrian refugees taking up residence in Turkey—whose numbers have exceeded by several orders of magnitude the burden Turkish leaders said at the beginning of the war they could tolerate.
For its part, Washington has declined to uphold its perceived “red lines” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, despite concerns that the decreased U.S. credibility that results will encourage Iran, North Korea, and other countries to challenge other declared U.S. red lines. With Washington’s encouragement, Ankara has requested, and received, only assistance under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which provides for urgent consultations if a NATO member considers its security interests threatened. Turkey has not sought Article 5 protection, which calls for collective defensive actions to counter threats, because few NATO members want to employ military force against Syria. The alliance justified deploying Patriot air defense missiles in southern Turkey last year as a purely defensive measure. NATO has not tried to use them to establish a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace, which the systems have the capacity to do. Such a step would make it easier for the Sunni rebels to establish camps and troop concentration across the border in Syrian territory.
IMPLICATIONS: The main purpose of last week’s Erdoğan-Obama summit was to resolve growing differences between Ankara and Washington regarding how to respond to the Syrian War. In a reversal of the Iraq situation a decade ago, the beleaguered Turkish government now has been increasingly pressing the United States to adopt a more assertive stance in a neighboring Arab country. Turkish officials have called for arming the rebels, establishing no-fly zones to negate the devastating effects of Syrian air power, and making a greater effort to deny foreign arms shipments to the Syrian government.
Following their meeting, it was clear that Obama had not changed his position that it was premature for direct U.S. military intervention or U.S. arms deliveries to the insurgents. U.S. officials have parried Turkish proposals to consider the option of establishing a border buffer zone or safe areas deeper inside Syrian territory by noting that past experience shows that, unless backed by air strikes and robust ground forces, the adversary will not respect these safe havens. Washington remains uncomfortable regarding the skills and not least the ideological inclinations of the Syrian insurgents. U.S. policy has focused on keeping the conflict largely contained within Syria, which has succeeded even though it could soon easily spill over much more extensively into Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.
Instead, the U.S. and Turkish governments have pursued the relatively low-cost option policy of seeking to induce Assad to give up voluntarily in some form of managed political transition to a broader and more representative regime. Yet, the Syrian president is not the center of gravity of the war, as Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was in Libya. Whereas Qaddafi’s death ended his unique regime, in Syria the regime’s power resides with the security, business, and political elites. This system of collective rule, which has a sectarian orientation due to the large numbers of minority Alawites among the elite, could easily result in a continuation of Assad’s policies even if the incumbent president leaves office.
It remains unclear whether the Turkish government will accept the U.S. positions. In the case of the proposed no-fly zone, Ankara really has no choice since it lacks the means to implement a no-fly regime or a safety-zone without U.S. military assistance. But without Turkey’s backing, it will prove difficult to rein in the Sunni militant insurgents.
CONCLUSIONS: Although they have not adopted the Israeli position that the best outcome might be a weakened and divided Syria rather than an outright victory for the rebels, neither the Turkish nor the U.S. governments have considered Assad’s removal a sufficiently vital national interest as to warrant the use of their own troops in Syria. By some estimates, more than one hundred thousand foreign occupation forces would be necessary to pacify Syria and destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles. And these troops would have to remain for a long time, risking another Iraq-style insurgency.
Rather than commit to such a burden, Turkish and U.S. policy makers continue to hope that their lesser exertions will achieve Assad’s fall and the advent of a new Syrian government able to reestablish sufficient order without foreign troops to avert a Somalia-style failed state in which criminals and terrorists enjoy de facto impunity from their nominal government. The Assad regime may miscalculate and finally force Ankara’s or Washington’s hands, but the most likely scenario for the next few years is a continuation of the current crisis and the powerful possibility of a renewed Ankara-Washington rift over how to respond to the Syrian conflagration.
Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.